Diane di Prima – An Introduction

by David Hadbawnik


The problem with fame is that one can seldom control what one’s famous for.

In literary history, this has proved true of the writers associated with the “Beat” movement of the 1950s-60s, none of whom, to a greater or lesser extent, has been able to fully emerge from the long shadow of the Beat era, even though most went on to have careers that extended far beyond that brief period, and produced writing that differs greatly from what they wrote during that time.

And this is especially true of Diane di Prima, current Poet Laureate of San Francisco. I first came to her poetry workshop in response to an ad she’d posted in Poetry Flash, the long-running East Bay poetics newspaper, sometime in 1998. I knew her as the striking young dark-haired woman sitting coyly on an unmade bed from the cover of her most famous book, Memoirs of a Beatnik—a text I had hurriedly gobbled up sometime during my undergraduate years, only later coming to realize how vastly underrated it was, a precursor to the explicit and experimental fiction of other women writers like Kathy Acker. Probably by then, while browsing the upstairs poetry room at City Lights, I had also seen the iconic image of Diane sitting astride a piano at the Gaslight, which remains a popular postcard along with other Beat icons in the carousel display at City Lights. I imagine many others know and recognize Diane di Prima the same way: As someone who was, vivaciously and authentically, there. It’s a reductive and limited view, but a mistake that’s easy to make given her strong association with that image, that book—even though, as I mention above, the more salacious episodes of Memoirs tend to obscure the subtle, subversive genius of the text.

It took all of five minutes in Diane di Prima’s poetry workshop for me to realize her life and writing went much, much deeper than the cultural shorthand of her relationship with the Beats. I remember that, in a sunlit room in a converted south Mission warehouse, we talked about, read, and responded to John Keats. (About Keats, at the time, I was as shallowly misinformed as I had been about di Prima herself.) We started right in with careful attention to the effects employed in Keats’s sonnets and great odes, discussed and debated the statements on poetry in his famous letters, and began to learn about the particulars of his life so vital to understanding his writing. Eventually, we made our own first experiments in response to this discussion, sharing them with little comment towards the end of the six-hour class. This set the tone for a rigorous and challenging five years of study with di Prima, during which she led a diverse and somewhat nebulous group of students through a long poetic lineage that included a wide range of poets, many of whom she had known well—including Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara, John Weiners, and Robert Duncan, to name a few.

Indeed, as I intermittently worked with Diane in various capacities—everything from helping to clear out a storage space in the Mission, to responding to requests for her poems from various journals, to making corrections in the manuscript of her more recent memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman—I gradually learned a great deal about her remarkable career. That she worked closely with Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) editing the important poetry magazine Floating Bear beginning in the 1950s. That she played a critical role in establishing the Poets Theater in New York, also during the 50s. That she’d moved to Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles in the early 1960s, befriending artists like Wallace Berman and George Herms, and becoming involved in that important circle. That she’d later moved to San Francisco, been active with the Diggers, wrote her Revolutionary Letters, engaged in a lifelong study of alchemy and hermetic traditions that have informed and enriched her poetry for many years, most notably in her ongoing and important Loba poems… That she helped found, along with Robert Duncan and others, New College in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 80s (long before its unfortunate, recent decline and demise).

All this, and much more, constitute a life of constant motion and active engagement with the living tradition of poetry—a life that, it should be clear, extends exponentially beyond di Prima’s early associations with bohemian New York and the Beat writers.

That life and work has been woefully underappreciated by other poets and literary scholars. Granted, as I’ve witnessed from having once helped her manage the many requests she receives for work from a wide range of editors, as well as attending her readings in the Bay Area and elsewhere, she does not lack for readers who value the serious nature of her work. For example, it was through di Prima that I first met Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen, who at that time had recently moved to Austin, TX, and begun their important journal Skanky Possum, modeled on magazines like Floating Bear, with an emphasis on DIY production and coherent poetic lineages. They had struck up an acquaintance with di Prima that blossomed into friendship and poetic kinship, sending her copies of the journal, corresponding with her, and over the years, sharing their work with her and keeping up with hers. There are others amongst the current generation of poets who have sought her out in much the same way—but that one must make such an effort to seek her out in an almost samizdat fashion is the critical failing I’m driving at.

As a search of any library or online literary database shows, there is precious little written about di Prima. A few articles have been published here and there—mostly dealing with the relative novelty of her ability to live and thrive amidst the almost exclusively male Beat scene of the 1950s and 60s. This is admirable and worthy of mention, but as I outline above, the scope and depth of her work demands much greater scrutiny. This is especially true in relation to the amount of material that continues to be produced, as an almost cottage industry, on other writers associated with the Beats—no one could possibly miss the endless culling from Keroauc’s notebooks, or the texts that appear alongside them, as well as publications trumpeting and examining various aspects of Ginsberg’s life and writings, etc. The lack of anything remotely resembling this level of attention when it comes to di Prima is startling.

It’s tempting, and no doubt partially true, to blame this silence on the fact that di Prima’s a woman—an outspoken, iconoclastic one at that. Yet other women poets, whose reputations have long languished in the shadows of their male contemporaries—I’m thinking of Lorine Niedecker here—have recently begun to emerge from those shadows with new editions of poems, and serious works of criticism and biographies to stand alongside them. Of course, Niedecker has the sheen of her association with Zukofsky and the Objectivist poets to make critical commentary academically viable; she also has a quiet, steady (though no less astonishing, upon close scrutiny) line of poetic development that critics can trace. Di Prima has worked almost exclusively outside the academy. Even her work helping to establish New College must be viewed as an alternative to traditional academia, and the bulk of her teaching since then has taken place in the informal setting of her various workshops. This, along with the lingering “Beat” association, has perhaps led to the perception among mainstream scholars that her work lacks intellectual rigor, and thus is not worthy of attention.

That perception is wrong. Hopefully, the materials gathered here—contributed by former students, scholars, and fellow poets—will begin in some small way to broaden the perception of di Prima’s life and work, introduce topics of research and points of entry for those who know her only as a poet of revolution, only as a memoirist, etc. As for me, over my years of study with Diane di Prima, the primary lesson driven home was the enormity of the task of learning one must undertake to seriously approach the subject of poetry. It’s led me to become a lifelong student alongside my poetic practice—as well as an editor and publisher, and a producer of poets theater—all parts of the broad poetic engagement and discourse I began to learn long ago in that south Mission warehouse studying with Diane. For that, I can only thank her.